Terms of Endangerment: EPA to Cut Global Warming Pollution

At long last, the Environmental Protection Agency today officially recognized that the carbon pollution from our cars and power plants leads to killer heat waves, stronger hurricanes, higher smog levels, and many other direct and indirect threats to human health. 

With this step, the Obama administration has gone a long way to restore respect for both science and law. The era of defying science and the Supreme Court has ended. 

SPECIAL NRDC LIVE CHAT: Join David Doniger for a live online discussion about the EPA's endangerment determination on Monday, April 20, at 1 p.m. Eastern here on NRDC's Switchboard blog. Click here to join the chat.

Administrator Lisa Jackson issued an "endangerment determination" under the Clean Air Act -- a finding that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping air pollutants "may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare" and that motor vehicle emissions of those pollutants "contribute" to that dangerous air pollution.

Jackson's EPA and the Obama White House actually have acted quite quickly, producing the endangerment determination less than 90 days into the new president's term.  But it has been a long wait.  The simple acknowledgment that global warming pollution is dangerous to our health and our environment proved to be too much for the Bush administration.  Eight years of scientific and legal denial -- our "little ice age" in Washington -- are finally over (see my previous post "See No Email").  

Ten years ago, in the Clinton administration, EPA's general counsel ruled that CO2 is an air pollutant just like any other air pollutant, and is subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act -- the nation's most effective environmental law -- if the administrator makes an endangerment determination.  But in 2003 the Bush EPA revoked that legal ruling and announced that the Clean Air Act simply does not apply to global warming pollution from motor vehicles.  The next year, EPA took the same position on global warming pollution from power plants. 

NRDC played a leading role in a grand coalition of states and environmental organizations that challenged the EPA rulings.  It took a while, but in 2007 the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling, Massachusetts v. EPA, flatly rejecting the Bush administration's position.  The Court ruled that CO2 and other greenhouse gases from motor vehicles are air pollutants.  The Court further held that EPA must determine, based on scientific considerations alone, whether those emissions are dangerous to health or welfare, and if so, issue standards to cut their emissions from new cars with available technology. 

Today EPA has issued a bullet-proof scientific review, based on reports from the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, and a host of other studies.  The EPA review catalogues the full range of human health and environmental harms attributable to global warming pollution.

The endangerment determination issued today has important consequences.  It requires EPA to follow up with standards under the Clean Air Act to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants from new cars.  While EPA has not said exactly what it will do and when, there are strong indications the administration is working on a plan to issue national standards for vehicles that equal or exceed those set by California ("Smile and Waive" ) -- that would be a great achievement.

EPA also will soon have to address whether power plants' CO2 emissions "contribute" in the same way to dangerous global warming pollution.  Since power plants are responsible for twice as much heat-trapping emissions as cars, the answer is obvious. 

To be sure, today's announcement is a proposal, and everyone - including the dwindling ranks of climate deniers - will have a chance to comment on EPA's scientific conclusions.  The final determination will likely be issued in conjunction with the final national vehicle standards next year.  But given the state of the science, there's not the slightest doubt about the outcome. 

The Chamber of Commerce and others will claim that using the Clean Air Act against global warming pollution will lead to economic disaster.  But those are just scare tactics (see "The Phony 'Train Wreck'"). 

We have the technology to cut global warming pollution from our cars, power plants, and other sources, mainly by making and using energy more efficiently, and by adopting renewable and cleaner energy sources.  The energy technology revolution will help our economy recover, create millions of green jobs, save consumers billions of dollars, and cut our dangerous dependence on foreign oil.

NRDC salutes President Obama and Administrator Jackson for their actions to tackle global warming.  We will work with them to carry out the existing Clean Air Act, and we'll work with them and with leaders in Congress, including Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, to enact comprehensive new climate legislation ("'First Read'"). 

The climate is too big to be allowed to fail.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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